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Back when raw sewage was dumped into the Great Salt Lake

Until the 1960s, dumping raw sewage into the Great Salt Lake was a continual and normal practice along the Wasatch Front

The low water of the Great Salt Lake shows with Antelope Island in the background. This photo is taken from Skyline Drive above Bountiful. photo by Ravell Call (Submission date: 07/22/2003)
The low water of the Great Salt Lake shows with Antelope Island in the background. This photo is taken from Skyline Drive above Bountiful on July 22, 2003.
Ravell Call, Deseret News

Until the 1960s, dumping raw sewage into the Great Salt Lake was a continual and normal practice along the Wasatch Front.

While the Great Salt Lake was one of Utah’s best known attractions, it had been a cesspool for decades.

Davis County leaders finally realized in the late 1950s that this was not a good environmental practice. ”North Davis’ sewer treatment plant made ready to operate,” was a headline in the Weekly Reflex newspaper of Oct. 2, 1958 (article available on newspapers.com, subscription required).

This facility cost $1.3 million and featured a high-rate filter that was the first of its kind in Utah. The plant was designed so that its water emissions were not harmful to any animal.

Central Davis and South Davis County also developed their own similar sewage plants soon after.

Construction moves ahead on sewer” was an Oct. 6, 1960, headline in the Reflex, as the Central District in west Kaysville proceeded to build a sewer treatment plant.

However, it was Salt Lake City that stalled on creating a sewage treatment plant.

Outmoded sewage system mocks modern S.L. pride” was a Jan. 29, 1958, headline in both the Deseret News and the Salt Lake Telegram newspapers. ”Salt Lake prides itself on being a modern city,” the story stated. “It is a modern city without a modern sewage system. It is modern city which inflicts raw sewage upon its neighbors to the north and which closes large areas to development because of lack of sewage facilities.”

The story reported that there were four badly needed sewer projects in northern Salt Lake County — a modern sewage treatment plant; a sewer line on Redwood Road; a sewage line on 300 East; and an airport sewer extension.

Yet, even more than three years later, these problems were not solved and Davis County in particular was the most upset. “Davis rakes disposal plant plan” was a March 14, 1962, headline in the Salt Lake Tribune. Salt Lake City was then considering a plan to put a new sewage treatment plant at the southern end of Davis County, just beyond the city limits of North Salt Lake City.

North Salt Lake City leaders wanted, at the least, for such a facility to be west of Redwood Road if it was going to be in Davis County.

“Davis County set the pattern in location of disposal plants by placing them in areas which would not distract from any present facilities,” North Salt Lake Mayor Clay Allred said.

Finally, in late 1965, Salt Lake cleaned up its sewage emissions.

“‘Cesspool’ abandoned after 25 years” was a Sept. 14, 1965, headline in the Salt Lake Tribune. The story stated that the “biggest open-ended cesspool in the country” was now gone. The Tribune had declared that superlative 25 years earlier.

In the fall of 1963, Salt Lake began work on a sewage plant and it was at the northern edge of Salt Lake County. The end result was described as a first-class plant that cost $8 million and was under the proposed budget.

Notwithstanding those environmental strides, the Deseret News reported on April 20, 2002, that “Farmington Bay is a sewage treatment pond.” Three sewage treatment plants dump their treated wastewater directly into the bay and several other plants in S.L. County dump their wastewater into the Jordan River, which also dumps into the same bay too. The concern then was all the nutrients this adds to the lake and that the salinity is low because the Antelope Island Causeway has but one opening to mix the bay’s water with the rest of the Gret Salt Lake.

An earlier Deseret News story on June 12, 1994, had reported that some geologists feared there were “Fetid masses of pickled sewage” in layers under the Farmington Bay portion of the Great Salt Lake. That’s because before sewage treatment plants, the briny waters might have preserved the raw sewage in layers of settlement.

More history

A Dec. 10, 1959, story in the Weekly Reflex newspaper of Kaysville reported on a lesser known phenomenon in the Great Salt Lake — that there are freshwater springs in the middle of the lake. That’s apparently one of the places where the aquifer releases some its stored water.

Back then, in the 1950s, the Great Salt Lake’s ecosystem not was well-known. Thus, this Reflex article stated that a main goal of the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District was “to take all the water before it gets in the Great Salt Lake.” It is now believed that this water diversion is a major reason for the lake’s low elevation in recent years.

Lynn Arave worked as a newspaper reporter for more than 40 years. He is a retired Deseret News reporter/editor, from 1979-2011. His email is lra503777@gmail.com. His Mystery of Utah History blog is at http://mysteryofutahhistory.blogspot.com.